Three veterans of Rosa Mexicano set out to channel the lively flavors and casual vibe of Mexico City in a place of their own. So far, so bueno.
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Orale, pronounced aura-lay, is well named. “It means, ‘Hell, yeah!’ or ‘C’mon in!’ in Mexico City slang,” chef James Muir told me. Muir, 36, is not Mexican, but he knows his Mexican food. The son of a Scottish father and a French mother, he grew up in Buenos Aires, went to prep school in Massachusetts and traveled widely through Mexico. His food at Órale is as authentic and vivacious as anything I’ve eaten in Mexico City.
Grove Street—downtown, near the Hudson River—has become Jersey City’s Restaurant Row. The young hipsters who populate the neighborhood embraced Órale as soon as it opened in April. It’s easy to understand why. The look alone is worth a visit, from the illuminated floor-to-ceiling display of bottled Mexican sodas in their day-glo colors to the Lucha Libre wrestling masks on the walls.
Co-owners Alex Mendelsohn and Louis Alvarez worked together in the Rosa Mexicano chain. Mendelsohn, 29, grew up in Princeton Junction, studied hospitality at the University of Delaware, and was managing Rosa’s Washington branch when he and Alvarez, the company’s regional manager, became friendly and started to plan a place of their own.
“Rosa Mexicano is more formal, not really a place you’d drop by after work for a margarita and three tacos,” Mendelsohn told me in a phone call after my visits. “There was room for a more casual place with a lot of personality and energy. We wanted to punch up the flavors, add regional dishes, and create a fun, approachable atmosphere like you’d find in Mexico City.”
Alvarez, 46, born in Ecuador and raised in North Bergen, had once managed Shanghai Red’s in Weehawken. The two started looking for a place in Hudson County, but soon zeroed in on Jersey City, which Mendelsohn said “is evolving into a sixth borough of New York City.”
The pair approached Muir, formerly the Mid-Atlantic regional chef for Rosa Mexicano. “I have a rebellious streak,” said Muir, a French Culinary Institute grad who had worked for Rocco DiSpirito and Alain Ducasse. “I wanted to do something with my own menu and my own kitchen. For a chef, Mexican is a very exciting cuisine, and fits with everything going on in Jersey City.”
Muir gathered a kitchen crew “from all over Latin America, including Mexico,” he told me. “They bring all these great kitchen cultures to every dish.” One key hire was chef de cuisine Alejandro Saenz, a Jersey City native with Salvadoran roots. Another was Olivia Guitterez as salsera, or saucemaker. Born and trained in Morelos, a city near Puebla, the cradle of Mexican mole sauces, she was at the Rosa flagship at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. She is the reason you keep asking for more salsas and cremas at Órale.
The menu ranges from plates of snack-sized bocadillos (mouthfuls, eight kinds, $5) to antojitos (starters, nine kinds, $7-$11), guacamoles (six kinds, $7-$9), tacos de calle (street tacos, nine kinds, $9 or $12), to hearty main dishes (five choices, $15-$28). Then there are enchiladas and an assortment of sides.
Bocadillos disappeared as soon as they were delivered: crunchy yet creamy corn buñuelos (corn dumplings served in their frying baskets); masterfully pan-fried plantains dotted with lusty, spiced Mexican white cheese; crunchy fried yucca (Tater-Tot lookalikes) with a seductive chipotle aioli. The only dish we did not lick clean was the salsa roja, a bland, tomato-based dip assembled tableside.
Speaking of tableside, the chopping and folding of guacamole in a big stone bowl is an entertaining highlight of a meal at Rosa Mexicano. Órale denies you that pleasure, but don’t pass their inspired renditions by. Pick any three for $12. We had the guacamole with blue cheese and toasted pepitas; with pineapple and mango; and with pork belly nubbins—leaving chipotle; shrimp; and casa (tomato, cilantro, onion, jalapeño and lime) to dream about till next time.
With tacos de calle—the definitive street food of Mexico City—you pick three types for $16. I was seduced by the Machin (macho guy), which tops lush roasted bone marrow with crunchy pork belly and a little shredded cabbage to temper the richness; Borracho (drunk), Jersey halibut fried in Tecate beer batter with pickled jalapeño-cabbage slaw; and Happy (how’d an Anglo name sneak in?), chicken sausage topped with two poached quail eggs, pickled tomatillos and Guzman’s spiced yogurt sauce. Why Happy? The pair of quail yolks, Muir explained, put him in mind of a smiley face.
We’re still getting under way here. Another must is Órale’s queso flameado, a kind of Mexican fondue of Chihuhuan and Oaxaqueño cheeses served with tortilla chips. We wolfed down the $8 camionero (truck driver) variation, bolstered with chorizo and crisp potato bits sautéed with onions and cream.
“You could make a meal of Órale’s starters,” warned Muir in a major understatement. “But then you’d miss our meaty entrées.”
And that would be a shame. Like Órale’s produce and seafood, meat is sourced in New Jersey. Meaty roasted lamb ribs were sparked by a piquant tamarind-chili glaze. Dinosaurio, named for its massive bone, is a slab of grilled short rib with deep beef flavor and a perky tomatillo and tomato sauce. Organic pollo con mole is lavished with Guzman’s Jarocha mole from Veracruz. Though made with dark chocolate like the more familiar Puebla-style, Órale’s Jarocha mole—made with hazelnuts, almonds, figs and raisins—“is not overpowering, like black mole from Puebla can be,” Muir noted.
Flan is the crème brûlée of Latin desserts, the no-brainer. But Muir’s is stellar: firm and eggy, cooked with Mexican vanilla and cajeta, Mexico’s deep-brown, goat-milk caramel. The flan is then capped with cajeta. Tres leches cake is airy and citrusy, rather than damp and treacly. But the aha! comes when you bite into a deeply chocolatey morenita (little brown thing).
“Brownies are global today,” Muir explained. “You see them in Mexico City. Our innovation is to use rich Belgian chocolate and add chopped almonds and fresh grated Mexican cinnamon.” That makes two dishes they could rightly call Happy.